Building a Professional Learning Network and Avoiding Information Overload
Technology is leading to a flattening of the world as resources, information, and knowledge are widely accessible to anyone with Internet access. Teachers in all grade levels and subject areas from around the globe are using professional learning networks (PLNs) to connect with one another to share resources, seek help and feedback, and find collaboration opportunities. However, the rapid influx of information from an expansive library of social media and Web 2.0 tools is overwhelming teachers and deterring them from using PLN tools to benefit from the collective knowledge of a community of experts.
During the summer, I conducted a research study about K–12 teachers’ use of PLNs. I built an e-course that introduced teachers to five PLN tools: Google Reader, Diigo, Twitter, Edmodo, and Ning. The participants learned about and discussed various topics, including information literacy; networking and netiquette; ethics and privacy; how to use the different tools to seek help, advice, and feedback; and how to share expertise. I collected qualitative data from the discussion forum posts and surveys at the end of each lesson.
After analyzing the data, I found two main concerns about building a PLN: 1) limited time for using PLN tools, and 2) feeling overwhelmed by information overload and juggling multiple tools. One of the participants expressed her anxiety with building a PLN in the introductory discussion forum: "I have already hit the point of being overwhelmed! I have experimented with wikispaces, signed up for Twitter, Edmodo, Vimeo, Picasa 3, YouTube, and I might add blogs. I am not at the level of being able to differentiate between the various information sources. I am in [the] process of obtaining a level of comfort." (ReadtoLead, 2012).
In response to these concerns, I would like to share some tips for how to successfully build a PLN. When you first begin to build your PLN, start small by selecting only one tool to use. If you select an RSS reader (e.g., Google Reader) or microblogging site (e.g., Twitter), add no more than five blogs or people to follow. As you get more comfortable using the tool, you can add more information sources. If time permits, you can explore other tools to use as well. If something becomes too overwhelming, cut back (i.e., delete some of the individuals you follow on Twitter), but don't give up on the tool.
There are two different types of PLN tools: information aggregation and social media connections (Trust, 2012). Although you can use both tools to collect information, social media connection tools are more useful for building your network, asking questions, and conversing with other educators. Information aggregation tools allow you to lurk and learn from others, but they typically do not provide direct interaction or communication opportunities. When you select your first PLN tool, make sure it can help you achieve what you need. If you want to just lurk and learn, select an information aggregation tool. If you want to connect, communicate, and collaborate with other teachers, start with a social media connection tool.
I asked the research participants to share how they used the different tools in the e-course. The majority of participants used Google Reader for reading blogs to learn from experts, Diigo for monitoring shared resources and bookmarks in a group, Twitter for finding information and resources by following individuals and hashtags (#), and Ning (i.e., The Educator's PLN or Classroom 2.0) for browsing discussion forums to learn about a specific topic. Edmodo was the most popular tool, and it was the only tool that the participants used to interact with others through conversations. Twitter and Google Reader were the most overwhelming tools, and many participants stopped using them because they felt they could not keep up with the rapid flow of information.
Another important tip is to limit the amount of time you spend using your PLN tools. There are always great resources and people to connect with, but you do not have to read everything and respond to everyone on a daily basis. You can set a daily limit (10 minutes a day for three days a week) or a weekly limit (45 minutes once a week). It can be helpful to schedule your PLN time in your calendar so you have the time reserved for learning and interacting with others in your PLN.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the massive amount of information available from blogs, tweets, discussion forums, and wall posts. To prevent information overload, skim the titles of the blogs and the discussion forum threads. If you find something of interest, explore that blog post, thread, or tweet in-depth until your PLN time limit ends. If you find that everything you read is piquing your interest, select a topic, teaching technique, or skill that you would like to learn more about and read only posts, tweets, and forums that relate to your focus. You can select a new topic every week or stay with the topic until you have expanded your expertise in the area.
You can gain plenty of insight and connections by using your PLN, but the key is to start slow and keep it simple.
ReadtoLead (2012, July). Professional Learning Network (PLN) e-Course for Teachers [online forum comment].
Trust, T. (2012). Professional learning networks designed for teacher learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 28(4), 133–138.
Torrey Trust is a PhD student in teaching and learning at University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Education.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 9. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.